Melville Stories

by: Herman Melville

"Bartleby the Scrivener" (cont.)

Summary "Bartleby the Scrivener" (cont.)

Analysis

One important theme in "Bartleby" is that of charity. Many readers have puzzled over the character of the Lawyer. We must ask, in the end, does he do well by Bartleby, or does he contribute to the man's ruin? Most readers would admit that the Lawyer is surprisingly accepting of Bartleby's stubborn attitude. At first, this is due to the fact that the Lawyer simply doesn't know how to deal with Bartleby. He is so surprised that Bartleby refuses him (especially in such a calm manner), that he doesn't reprimand him. At one point, Bartleby's calm attitude—as if it were perfectly reasonable that he prefer not to do what the Lawyer asks of him—drives the Lawyer to wonder whether he's the one that's crazy: "It is not seldom the case that, when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins…to vaguely surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side."

The Lawyer does his utmost to figure Bartleby out, but he does abandon Bartleby at the end, moving his office to escape the morose man. Many readers, puzzled by the mystery of Bartleby, often pass over this greatly humorous event: the Lawyer actually moves his office rather than having Bartleby taken away. Most of Melville's humor is very subtle, or lost in the shuffle of other themes and meanings). But when Bartleby is threatened with imprisonment, the Lawyer actually offers to allow Bartleby to stay in his own home, which Bartleby refuses. Most readers might interpret this as the ultimate act of charity; but has the Lawyer really done everything he could for Bartleby? The Lawyer may actually have made a crucial, self-centered error: he momentarily thinks that perhaps the reason that Bartleby haunts the office is in some way connected with the Lawyer himself, not the office. But Bartleby is not really connected to either of these things. His tendency is to become increasingly more withdrawn and less mobile, for whatever reason—that is what keeps Bartleby around the offices.

No analysis of Bartleby is complete without mentioning the last paragraphs, where the Lawyer reveals the one clue he has discovered about Bartleby: a rumor that the man once worked in the Dead Letter office before being fired in an administrative shake-up. The narrator wonders whether it was this lonely, depressing job, reading letters intended for people now dead or gone, that drove Bartleby into the depressive spiral that ended in his final stillness beneath a prison-yard tree.